Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Of rebels, insurgents and terrorists: a book review

ARE YOU LOOKING for clues as to the possible outcome of the American “democratization project” in Iraq? Try reading David Rooney’s “Guerilla: insurgents, rebels and terrorists from Sun Tzu to Bin Laden” (Brasseys UK, 2004). This book tells as about the history as well as the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare from the ancient days up to the present, featuring a major cast of colorful characters including Judah Maccabee of ancient Israel, the Boer commandos, Michael Collins of Irish Republican Army, Lawrence of Arabia, Giuseppe Garibaldi of Italy, the Chindits of Burma, Mao Zedong, Joseph Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Che Guevarra, and Osama Bin Ladin. Reading the book, one couldn’t help but conclude that the Americans in Iraq will eventually have to leave—and leave in disgrace.

It’s because guerrillas are usually effective when the raison d’etre of the guerrilla struggle is the presence of a foreign occupier. There’s an overwhelming proof for this: Spanish guerrillas drove away Napoleon Bonaparte out of Spain, the Boers brought the British to the negotiating table and got the status of a free state, Michael Collins forced the British to negotiate for the eventual creation of an independent albeit divided Ireland, Mao help drive away the Japanese eventually capture state power, Tito drove the Germans and became Yugoslavia’s head of state, the VietCong drove the Americans away out of Vietnam, mujahideens drove the Russians back home.

There’s no secret to guerrilla tactic employed. Rooney said all these successful guerrillas adhered to the concepts first codified by Sun Tzu and little has changed since then: the use of terrain, mobility, deception, surprise attack and dispersal, avoiding set battles, the use of secure base, and swimming like fish in the water (the masses), persistence, discipline, the role of propaganda and psychological warfare, among many others. Most of the successful practitioners adapted Sun Tzu’s concepts to specific terrain and context but the basic doctrines haven’t changed. Mao summarized it so well: “when the enemy attacks, we retreat or disperse; when the enemy encamps, we harass; when the enemy runs, we pursue; and when the enemy tires, we go for the kill.”

Bin Ladin however added a new dimension-- religion, thus making guerrilla warfare an even more potent weapon among the discontented and the fanatics. If Bin Laden and Al Qaeda succeeds in getting weapons of mass destruction especially nukes, he might just redefine guerilla warfare to the world's peril.

The determined guerrilla sometimes wins not because of decisive military victories but because foreign occupiers eventually have to leave. And they do leave earlier than expected when they realized it’s no longer politically prudent to stay a minute longer because citizens and politicians back home are increasingly grumbling about the huge expenses in terms of lives, money and materiel.

General Giap’s army in Vietnam was practically broken during the Tet Offensive and the Americans could have given it a coup d’ grace but the citizens back home have had enough of the carnage, mayhem, and body bags. So the Americans had to leave—and they left ignominiously.

Not all guerilla movements succeed though. An example of this is the defeat of the Communist guerrillas in the Federation of Malaya, now Malaysia, by the British SAS and local troops. But the defeated guerillas are not at all discussed at length, thus giving us a bit one-sided view of the whole issue. The discussion of failed guerrilla movements could have given us deeper and balanced insights as to factors that determine success and failure in guerrilla warfare.

But overall though the book is a good read, despite occasional lapses in grammar and editing. And it could be disturbing to those who are in the business of protecting the status quo.

No comments: